“Chances Are” is a signature for you. How did the song come to you?
I was crossing the street in New York one day, and I met Al Stillman. He wrote “It’s Not for Me to Say” [with Robert Allen]. Now, I had no idea who wrote the songs I was singing at that time. But he said, “Oh, by the way, we’ve had so much success with that song that I’ve written another,” and it was “Chances Are.” And that was the beginning of my association with songwriters. I never thought I would actually meet the people who wrote the songs.
What is the key to really selling a song with your vocal?
I’m always thinking about songs and how I can sing a song that would resonate with my voice, my persona. I want it to be a pleasant experience that’s not just about hearing my voice. I remember some singers whose voices were so pretty it didn’t matter what they sang, you loved it. And I thought, Well, wouldn’t it be nice to have a double whammy: a great voice, but also being witty in the interpretations of the song. Mabel Mercer was a good friend of mine. I just worshipped her, and that’s what she did with songs.
Sony’s Legacy Recordings marked your 80th birthday in 2015 with Johnny Mathis: The Singles, a four-disc anthology. Are you also recording new material?
I’ve recorded four songs of a new album we’re doing with Babyface. He has introduced me to some wonderful writers. It’s hard to find stuff that I really love, but it’s there. I’m looking forward to finishing this and getting it out there.
Who do you listen to today?
Oh, gosh, I listen to the ones that I love and grew up listening to. Lena Horne, I worshipped her, followed her and embarrassed myself by applauding too loudly when I was in the audience listening to her, so she had this love/hate relationship with me. She thought I was a pest because I was always trying to see her or be near her. Nat “King” Cole was my favorite singer of all time, not only because of his music but also because of the kind of person he was. There’s Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Larry Gatlin, Deniece Williams — those are some of the more contemporary ones, and that’s really what I gravitate to.